The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first meeting on the proposed Senate bill to revamp immigration reform. (Photo/Getty Images )

In shadow of Boston manhunt, Senate immigration hearing previews tough road ahead

As the nation was glued to the extraordinary events in Boston, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a shortened meeting on the recently introduced Senate immigration reform bill.  The first scheduled witness, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, could not attend due to the manhunt in Boston.  But members of the Committee did talk to two witnesses, and the kinds of issues and questions that were discussed provide a window into what will be debated as Congress considers a massive revamping of the nation’s immigration laws.

The first witness, Cleveland, Ohio-based Peter Kirsanow, is an attorney and the Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  “Illegal immigration has had a disproportionately negative effect on the employment of low-wage Americans, especially black Americans,” said Kirsanow.  Kirsanow argued that this was not only the case in metro areas, but in rural areas as well as southern states like South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

Kirsanow also argued that giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship would create even more unemployment among native Americans. “When you regularize 11 million people, the tiny advantage evaporates,” said Kirsanow.

RELATED: Gang of Eight Senators: We will fight for immigration reform

The second witness, center-right economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, had a different perspective.  Immigration improves the economy, he says, adding that as fertility rates in the U.S. decline, immigration builds labor force participation, and can help reduce the deficit by over $2 trillion dollars in the next ten years.  Holtz-Eakin said that immigrants start businesses at a higher rate and increase productivity.  Legalizing undocumented immigrants, he added, eliminates the capacity for exploitation, and allows employers more flexibility in managing their workforce.

Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a critic of the bill, said the issue of whether legalization can aggravate unemployment needs to be addressed.  Sessions also said he was not convinced the proposed legislation would reduce undocumented immigration.  “We’ll have to ask, are we going to be like 1986 again, when there were promises then, things that never happened,” said Sessions, referring to the 1986 law that granted legal status to about 3 million undocumented and made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented immigrants.

But South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, one of the Gang of Eight who crafted the just-introduced immigration bill, took issue with these arguments, saying, “There are certain parts of this economy where you won’t find American workers, no matter what you do,” citing as examples South Carolina’s meat packing industries, as well as its peach farms.

Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee said the bill was too big to do as one piece of legislation.  “I’m wary of trying to do this all in one fell swoop,” he said, also saying he had issues with treating 11 million undocumented Americans “like a monolithic group.”  Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken said the fact that immigration is currently a “broken system” is why a comprehensive approach was needed.

The issue of immigration and national security came up in the  meeting, especially in light of the Boston.  Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley said he was looking forward to discussing immigration with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “particularly in light of all that is happening in Massachusetts.”

But New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who is also one of the main architects of the Senate immigration bill, said, “I’d like that all of us don’t jump to conclusions or conflate this (Boston events) with this legislation.  Both the refugee and the asylum programs have been significantly strengthened,” said Schumer.  “If there are any changes DHS says we need to be made we will make them,” he added.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, put out a statement saying, “It is shameful that some on the far right are politicizing and demagoguing this issue.  It’s shameful, but not very surprising.  Those exploiting this tragedy in hopes of derailing immigration reform were opponents of reform long before this week,” Sharry said.

Alex Conant, spokesperson for Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the immigration bill’s drafters, tweeted that there were “legitimate policy questions to ask & answer about what role our immigration system played, if any, in what happened in Boston,” also tweeting, “Regardless of Boston circumstances, reform that strengthens borders & gives better accounting of who is in US will improve national security.”

The next hearing on the immigration bill will be Monday, according to Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee.

RELATED: Senate immigration bill revealed: pathway to citizenship, shift to employer-based visas 

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